Long before the gangnam style craze hit the world, my cousin became obsessed with Korean culture. And although one simply wonders… how does that even happen? Her answer, (she just stumbled across their music and dramas on youtube) leaves one quite unsatisfied. But despite the mystery behind the obsession, for the past few years, all our family has been hearing is Korean this, Korean that, Korean music, Korean dance moves, Korean celebrities, Korean clothes and yes, Korean food.
She’s been dragging family and friends to Korean restaurants whenever she can.
And that’s why she and I both were so excited when she first came to visit me in Atlanta, because I am totally up for trying out new stuff, and I genuinely wanted to ‘experience’ Korea town!!! Atlanta, she tells me, has one of the largest Korea towns in the US.
It was a very new and enriching experience, and I’m really looking forward to enjoying some more Korean food with her next time she comes, IA.
Here’s the thing about Korean food, though. If you go into it thinking you’re going to get something similar to Chinese food, then you’re completely off the mark. Korean food is very different in flavor from any other food but it has a very distinct flavor. Now you may or may not like it, but I did, so I will try to put it down here, in the hope that some of you might expand the horizons of your palate as well!
We were both going to Korea Town in Duluth for the first time, so we followed the GPS there, very happy when we couldn’t read the signs anymore, to a restaurant that my cousin had picked out. I have to say that at the peak of lunchtime, when 2 hijabis unhesitatingly walk into a Korean restaurant, packed with Koreans (only), it is really quite a sight. But after the initial, ‘Are you sure you’re in the right place?’ looks, they pretty much carried on with their meals and I was absolutely ready to eat, after glancing at the feasts laid out on everyone’s tables.
It was a small, slightly cramped cafe type restaurant. Very simple, but there were some Korean decorations here and there, and it had enough character that you could easily tell that you were not in any old American restaurant.
Now, we sat down, and my cousin said to me, ‘We’ll have this soup.’ I said, ‘Ok, we’ll start with soup, and what about the main course?’ And she said, ‘Um, no, I was thinking; all we’ll have is soup…?’ And my jaw fell to the floor and I started sputtering in shock and anger, that I didn’t come all this way to have a tiny bowl of soup!!!! I wanted real food! She kept on insisting that that’s what Koreans eat! I spat, ‘But everyone else’s table is piled high with food!!!’ To which she said, ‘No, that’s soup!! With sides and other things.. it’s really quite filling.’ So, I grudgingly gave in to the compromise that we’ll order something else if I don’t feel like it’s enough at the end of it.
She ordered a seafood soup, with the warning that the seafood will come with head/eyes attached, which didn’t really bother me all that much. I certainly don’t prefer it, but I wasn’t going to walk out of there because of that!
Anyhow, they brought out the sides first, almost all of them were outstanding. A small, whole fish, sliced fish and, some pickled vegetables and a surprisingly familiar item, lotus root!
Lotus roots are extremely popular in Peshawar! Known as nadroo or phayn they are widely eaten cooked with meat as nadroo gosht. The roots are long and wide, with prominent holes that go through and through, and a ‘hairy’ exterior. I’m not trying to make it sound enticing… you either love it or you don’t.
I was especially happy to see those, of course, it took me back home, and I enjoyed the totally new flavor of it.
Then, the main course came. The soup is served in these thick, stoneware soup bowls, and the idea is to keep it very, very, very, very hot! It comes with white rice and a raw egg; that you crack into the soup as soon as you get it, and the idea is for it to cook in the heat of the soup. So, crack the egg right away!
I was very hungry, the soup seemed very appetizing, but it was SO HHHOTTTT that I could only stare at it, in pain.
If you wait for it to cool down, you’ll be waiting forever. The serve wear is designed so that it never cools down. The rice is in a similar bowl. You just have to dive into it, burn your tongue, and thankfully start gulping down the yumminess.
It was… excellent. It was a totally unique flavor, but it surpassed my expectations in terms of taste. I couldn’t get myself to eat the shrimp that was staring at me with its lifeless eyes and whiskers attached, but it was no doubt a wonderful soup.
With the rice, it was a full meal, but like Chinese food, it doesn’t keep you full for a long time. They do keep replenishing the sides as many times as you want, so that’s great.
So, Phase I was a resounding success, and on to Phase II.
We stopped by at a bakery next door, which wowed you at first glance. The decor was rustic, country and it was loaded with baked delights that looked very fresh and very tempting.
I was simply amazed. I had no idea that Korean bakeries had such a high end look and carried such fine items. It was also priced accordingly, but I don’t grudge that. It was a pleasure going in there.
We chose a braided, cinnamon-y roll, a bean bun and these rice doughnut type things. We ate the roll in a matter of seconds, the doughnuts were… again… something so different and new… and so good, that we just couldn’t stop eating them! Their texture was something like… balls of gummy rubber, and although that sounds really horrible, they were highly addictive!!! I would try to make it sound more appetizing, but that’s what they were, yet I insist that they were yummy!
And then, there was the bean bun.
I am very familiar with bean buns. After all, I have seen Kung Fu Panda and it remains one of my all time favorite animated films.
But nothing about the idea of a bean bun ever sounded appealing to me. A bun… filled with a bean-y paste?
Was I ever wrong! It’s a slightly sweet filling, but it tastes nothing like the taste you would associate with… say… chikkar cholay! First of all, the beans are red beans, or azuki beans, cultivated in the Far East region and commonly used as a bean paste in their cuisines. Secondly, it’s kind of like… what jam is to fruit, although it’s not as sweet. But it’s a really earthy flavor and the delicate, sweet bun… beautiful. Perfect for tea!
I strongly suggest that you look up some Korean bakeries in your area and surprise your guests at the next tea party that you have, with some bean buns, some rubber balls and other delightful confectionary! It will be such a change from our usual items; they are totally different, yet simply delectable.
Interestingly, I also found out that Korea Town has Mozart Bakery, which was a very popular bakery in Dallas; although I never knew that it was Korean at the time! It was right next to our favorite desi store, so I know that it was quite popular among desis too. Right from the start, we saw that it was more of a high-end bakery; I loved looking around there. Well, apparently, it’s a chain.
From the bakery, we walked around the strip mall to the H mart. The Korean super center.
It’s the size of Korea.
And it has everything that you could possibly find in Korea (I imagine).
Well, my cousin was like a kid in a candy store, seeing things she had heard/read about or seen on TV. I wasn’t really looking at the things, but I was pretty amazed by the size of the store, and how it housed absolutely everything, from produce, to gadgets, fresh, frozen, packaged food; cookware, clothes, shoes, everything. They had a lot of samples out too. The good thing was that it had the look of American grocery stores. Everything was very well arranged, organized and clean. It was obviously a well set up system.
As an immigrant, I can especially appreciate the organization, and the size of their stock. Desi stores would be fortunate to have a fraction of the system that they seemed to have. Well, except for the desi stores in Dallas. Those are awesome.
Overall, it was a great trip, loved the food, and can’t wait to go back for more. Waiting for my partner in crime to visit again so we can go have lunch there again! But will be dropping by the bakeries soon! Can’t wait that long for the bean buns!
Oh! The H Mart also carries persimmons!!! Remember ‘Japani Fruit’ back in Pakistan? Looks like a tomato but tastes so weirdly sweet and delicious! And because Korean food has a good but unfamiliar flavor, I guess that’s a good metaphor for it too- weirdly delicious!
My cousin insists on me telling you that she’s not a crazy person (she is, though the Korean portion is only the tip of the iceberg) and that she honestly respects and enjoys Korean culture as well as many other cultures and food types. She wants me to explain that it’s just that Korean culture is one that isn’t as widely known or accessible yet in many places around the US so she gets very excited when it is. She wants me to continue to justify her actions for her but instead I will leave it for my readers to decide as they will! 🙂 Seriously, though, thanks for introducing me to Korean food!
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